NORTH ADAMS — Has the moment finally come to fix problems with the North Adams public safety building?
Ten years ago, U.S. Sen. Scott Brown toured the police station and said this: “Obviously, this building is struggling to be functional."
That now is common knowledge.
“It is a building that is suffering from decades of disinvestment and deferred maintenance," Mayor Tom Bernard said. "It’s a serious concern.”
During campaigns this year, mayoral candidates pledged to come up with a fix. Incoming Mayor Jennifer Macksey has described the conditions in the building as “deplorable.” Bernard recently formed a working group to look at possible spaces for a new building for the police and fire departments.
In the meantime, Bill Meranti, the city's director of inspection services, says the building on American Legion Drive isn't about to fall down.
Nothing "catastrophic like that," he says. “We have a list of issues that need to be rectified ... and should be rectified as [police and firefighters] continue to operate out of that building.”
Inside the North Adams Police Station
The North Adams Police Station was built in 1955 and few updates have been made in decades.
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Here, at a glance, are five problems with the building, which the Police Department shares with the Fire Department:
BACKGROUND: The Police Department, constructed in the 1950s, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act, is not accessible. Someone with a mobility disability complained under the Americans with Disabilities Act that the building was not accessible, leading to a settlement between the city and Department of Justice in 2012. Every entrance to the building requires stairs, the person complained, according to the 22-page settlement.
The DOJ and city agreed to a long list of fixes the city would undertake to improve accessibility.
“The building remains if not the last, one of the two last things we need to address,” Bernard said.
IMPACT: Officers sometimes meet in the parking lot with people who use wheelchairs or have physical disabilities, said Dave Sherman, a North Adams Police Department detective and president of the union that represents officers. People outside wave at security cameras because they physically can’t get in.
A few months ago, Sherman needed to interview a witness to an incident. The witness had a physical disability and could not make it up stairs to get into the station. “They essentially had a family member and their attorney carry them into the building,” Sherman said.
Getting inside the building was difficult enough, Sherman said, and they opted not to go down more stairs and into the official interview room, instead conducting the interview in the detective room, which, Sherman said, doesn't have a camera system. A person with a leg injury honked their car horn outside the station to summon help, Sherman said.
FIX: Come up with money to remodel. It would cost $1.7 million just to make the building accessible, a 2016 estimate from Bradley Architects found.
BACKGROUND: The state Department of Labor Standards received a complaint alleging that the building exposed people to asbestos. After visiting in March, the DLS advised the city to test throughout the building for asbestos.
Some asbestos in the building needs to be removed and other areas containing the fiber encapsulated, said Meranti, the director of inspection services. Inhalation of asbestos fibers is linked to several serious illnesses, including mesothelioma and lung cancer.
FIX: Removing materials containing asbestos from areas in the garage, locker rooms and flooring would cost about $20,000, Meranti said, citing estimates the city received.
“Now, it’s a matter of finding a funding source to pay for it,” he said. Damaged floor tiles are covered in the short term to prevent more wear, Meranti said. In one area, a rug was taped over broken tiles.
PROBLEM: Discolored tap water
IMPACT: Water that comes through the building's plumbing system is not used for drinking. Instead, the union pays for jugs of water.
“I don’t know that a test ever came back that said you can’t drink it,” Police Chief Jason Wood, who has worked in the building for two decades, said of the department’s water, “but I don’t think anyone is comfortable drinking it. It’s looked rusty before and discolored.”
Water in the Fire Department side of the building is used for showering and cleaning, but not drinking, according to Fire Department Chief Brent Lefebvre.
IMPACT: The police union had complained about the water, Meranti said. “That, in all honesty, has not been taken care of."
FIX: Re-plumbing the entire building would be needed to correct the issue of dirty water, according to Meranti. He is hoping a new building will be constructed and “these will all be moot points at some point.”
PROBLEM: Conditions in holding cells
IMPACT: Temperatures in the cells, located on the main floor of the station, can spike in summer.
During the summer, without air conditioning, temperatures in the holding cells are an issue. A detainee was held for more than 12 hours in the cells on a day on which it was 84 degrees inside, according to Sherman.
“Unfortunately, that's not an unusual thing,” Wood said.
The state Department of Public Health also has flagged health and safety violations in the cells.
A thermometer in the men’s cell area can hit 90 degrees during the summer, Wood said.
“Ventilation is a problem,” he said.
On top of that, there is no source of drinking water in the cells. Sherman said he hears the complaint “weekly” that someone has been banging on the door for an hour to get an officer’s attention to ask for water.
“Sometimes, depending on the call volume, people in custody have to wait, whether a couple minutes to much longer,” said Josh Zustra, a detective and the union’s secretary. "They usually say to us, ‘Hey I’ve been banging, where are you guys?’”
When asked how often someone waits for an hour for water, Wood said: “It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that it’s on a weekly basis.”
PROBLEM: Hindering modern police practice
IMPACT: For months last winter, the heat broke in the building’s basement. Sherman remembers the temperature falling to 39 degrees in the locker room. He brought in a space heater from home, he said. Heating pipes had rotted, according to Wood, and a new heating and cooling system since has been installed.
The showers in the bathroom are used for storage.
“In 20 years, I’ve never seen it used,” Wood said. In the same bathroom, tiles are missing from the bathroom walls.
The state of the building compromises ideal policing practices, Sherman said.
"From an operations standpoint, we don’t have a conference room. There is no way in this building to have any kind of professional meetings or professional development,” he said.
There is no "sally port," Sherman said, a secure area where police can drive into and walk someone arrested into the booking area.
"One of the biggest injustices,” Sherman said, “is that when someone is arrested, they are taken out of the cruiser, essentially, on a public street, in view of everyone in the Burger King drive-thru."
The restaurant is across the street from the police station.
Fire station issues
Lefebvre, the fire chief, is concerned about the state of the building it shares with police, but he feels that the impact on his department's day-to-day work is minimal.
"I believe this is attributed to the willingness of the members of this department to persevere and make do with what they have," he said in a statement.
Part of the Fire Department side of the building is accessible to those with mobility issues, and part is not, Lefebvre said.
The building can't accommodate all the department's equipment, according to Lefebvre.
"We have equipment stored at multiple locations throughout the city," he said in a statement. "Without more space, we are stuck."
Another challenge is the shower area, he said. "It is a single, open shower room with four shower heads. As you could imagine this would make for a very uncomfortable situation should the Fire Department hire a female firefighter which could happen as soon as next year."